Change Leadership in Higher Education

When it comes to the subject of genuine, substantive change, higher education is a paradox. On the one hand, we work in a field in which we constantly develop new ideas, solutions, and practices within our own fields. We advocate for change and, when the data contradict our current beliefs or models, we change our ideas. Basically we’re in the progress business. On the other hand, we - faculty and administrators alike - find it far more difficult to change our practices and behaviors. We consider innovation to be a distraction from, not a natural outgrowth of, our “real work,” ideas, solutions, and practices within our own fields. Basically we’re in the progress‐resistance business. So, why is leading change so hard in higher education?

We might see the impediments to change in higher education as arising in three main areas. And, since we are focusing on change at academic institutions, it might be appropriate to refer to these areas by using the names of three major academic disciplines.

  • The Psychology of Change: We try to implement change without understanding how people interpret what change is and how it affects their perception of the world.

  • The Sociology of Change: We try to adopt mechanisms for change that don’t fit the organizational culture of higher education and ignore the way in which departments and colleges reach consensus.

  • The Philosophy of Change: We try to change things for the wrong reasons and fail to perceive what we might call “the metaphysics of change.”

These three areas are so important for leading change successfully that we need to explore them each individually.

The Psychology of Change

The word change means different things to different people. As a result, when we talk about needed changes in our academic programs, not everyone hears the same message. For some people, change is replacement. A exists now and, while A may be flawed and incapable of delivering the best results, it’s familiar to us. When someone talks about change, they are saying that they want to replace A with B. We don’t know what B will be like. It could be worse than A, or it could be much the same. In any case, there will be a lot of pain and discomfort as we dismantle A and erect B in its place. People who take the replacement view of change can see change only in terms of loss: loss of the familiar, loss of status and perhaps competence, and loss of well-being. For other people, however, change is improvement. A exists now and, after we enhance it and develop it further, it will be a far better A because of our efforts. People who take the improvement view of change can see change largely in terms of gain: gain in efficiency, gain in reputation, and gain in modernity.

Falling somewhere between the replacement view of change and the improvement view of change is the view that all change is a journey. According to this perspective, change is constant. As the ancient philosopher Heraclitus is reported as saying, you can’t step into the same river twice. Whether or not you want things to remain the same, they are going to change. So, if A exists now, it will inevitably lead us someday to B, which will merely be a way station along the path to C, which in turn will take us toward D, and so on. In any change process, those who assume the replacement view of change tend to be resisters. Those who assume the improvement view of change tend to be our early adopters. And those who assume the journey view of change fall somewhere in the middle: They are usually waiting to find out what kind of trip the change process is going to be. If it is likely to be a pleasure cruise or a voyage of progress, they eventually come to support it. If it is going to be a forced march or a retreat, they will try to oppose it. They tend to take their lead from the early adopters, not the initiator of the change per se.

In their 2010 study of change processes, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, Chip and Dan Heath offer a model for better understanding how to cope with the psychology of change. To the Heaths, there are three aspects of how people interpret change that we always have to keep in mind.

  • The Rider: our rational, intellectual side that attempts to guide us through carefully reasoned analysis.

  • The Elephant: our emotional reactive side that often seizes control from the Rider.

  • The Path: our perception of where the change process is heading.

Each of these aspects reacts to change differently and requires different leadership from the initiator of change in order to make the process effective. The strategies that the Heaths recommend for each aspect are as follows.

To engage the Rider:

  1. Follow the bright spots

  • Determine what is already working well and do more of that. (This process is sometimes known as appreciative inquiry.)

  • Use your ability to succeed in certain areas as a model for how to succeed in others.

  • Use that as a model.

  • Do more of it.

  1. Script the critical moves

  • Since the Rider excels at analyzing, look for ways to help people resist overthinking the process and identifying potential problems that are unlikely or avoidable.

  • Set specific, achievable goals that people’s rational side can take hold of and note their progress in moving toward these goals.

  1. Point to the destination

  • Place these immediate goals within the plan’s long‐term context.

  • Repeatedly explain the benefits that will result from the change so that people keep their “eyes on the prize.”

To engage the Elephant:

  1. Find the feeling

  • What is the dominant emotion that people are experiencing? If it is excitement, use that excitement as an incentive for progress. If it is fear, take that fear seriously and work to make people more comfortable with the change.

  1. Shrink the change

  • How can the change be made to look less imposing, more manageable? If the journey of a thousand miles sounds too intimidating, focus on the next single step.

  1. Appeal to identity

  • How does the change relate to who we are; our core values? If a change seems threatening, present it as a natural development from who we are right now.

  1. Grow your people

  • How can our community become more creative, entrepreneurial, and inventive?

To shape the Path:

  1. Tweak the environment

  • People tend to be more flexible with change when their physical space also changes.

  • For example, when a program is moving to a new or remodeled facility, it is often a good time to work on curricular changes: A new focus for our new home.

  • Build a habit.

  1. Use checklists and “playlists” (sets of strategies that have proven to work in the past) to make new practices habitual.

  2. Rally the herd

  • Remember that peers tend to follow their peers, not necessarily their chair, dean, or provost.

  • Nurture your “first followers” or “early adopters” so that they will assist you in making the change part of the culture.

The Sociology of Change

Change never occurs within a vacuum; it always occurs as part of a system. For this reason, although focusing on the individuals involved in the change process (i.e., the psychology of change) is important, it is not sufficient to guarantee a successful change initiative. We have to pay attention to the organizational culture in which change occurs. The most common type of organizational culture is the hierarchy. Hierarchies can be found in cultures stemming all the way from the ancient Sumerian city‐state to most modern industrial conglomerates. In a hierarchy, power rises as you move up the social pyramid; numbers of people rise as you move down the social pyramid. When we prepare organizational charts for our institutions, we try to pretend that the college or university is structured as a hierarchy: faculty members report to a chair who reports to a dean who reports to a provost who reports to a president. But that sociological model fails to capture how higher education actually works. For example, curricular matters are not initiated by the president and interpreted or enforced at each subsequent level; they start¾and in many cases end¾with the faculty. Presidents or governing boards may have the final word in promotion and tenure decisions, but those processes usually move from the bottom of the social pyramid up, not from the top down.<